In 2017 Italian national team player Federico Celli was back in Italy playing for his hometown Rimini Baseball Club. Those of you who have followed his career in our In The MLB series know that he was released by the Dodgers over the summer of 2016.
Celli’s career began in Rimini. After signing with the MLB in 2012, at age 17, he spent all of that, and the next season, still at home. In 2014, he played in the AZL rookie league. Over 17 games he hit .343. In 2015 he was advanced to the The Great Lake Loons (A) and then the Rancho Cucamongo Quakes (A+). Over the season he had 60 at bats and a .232 average.
In 2016 Federico started the season back in the Great Lakes but was reassigned to extended spring training and finally sent to short-season rookie ball with the Ogden Raptors after posting a .091 average in 29 at bats. He spent just two games in Ogden, where his average was .429 over 7 at bats, before being released in the middle of the season.
Celli returned to Italy to begin the 2017 season with Rimini once again. That is where, he told EBSM, he finally found his swing.
In the regular season Celli hit .320 over 34 games with 125 at bats. His numbers included 24 runs off 40 hits with 8 doubles, 2 triples and 4 homeruns. He also walked 23 times and stole 11 bases. During the playoffs Celli accumulated a .368 average over 5 games and 19 at bats with 3 runs, 7 hits, and an RBI. In the final 3-game series he had 9 at bats with a .556 average with 4 runs off 5 hits, including a double, and 5 RBIs.
On defense he had 4 errors in the regular season bringing his percentage down to .940 with 61 putouts and 2 assists on 67 catches but in both the semi’s and finals, he was perfect on the field closing his final 8 games with a 1.000 fielding percentage.
Celli was not only playing in Italy this summer. He spent part of June in Regengsburg, Germany participating with Rimini in the European Championship. He then headed to London for their 4th of July MLB Battlegrounds event where he emerged home run derby champion.
We sat down with Federico to talk about the season and learned he has his sights set on another chapter in the MLB.
When did you return to Italy?
I came back in February to begin spring training. Before that, I was staying with my girlfriend in the States. Last year I got released in June. I stayed on for a few months but I didn’t find a team right away. During the off-season Rimini called and they were like, ‘Hey, I heard about the release. Do you want to come and play with us?’ I’m from Rimini so that’s why I came back.
I had a good season this year so hopefully, that will bring me to some teams either in the United States or basically anywhere.
Tell us about the experience in Italy this season.
The regular season was really crazy because we had ups and downs. We were at risk of to not make the playoffs at all. Winning streaks and losing streaks, and more losing streaks than winning streaks, then we finally made it to the playoffs.
In the playoffs everything changed. Here in Italy we have eight teams and the first four teams make the playoffs. We were 4th and played against the 1st, Bologna. The same team that we lost the championship to last season.
They had a really great team, like an amazing team. Monster line up, really good on defense, probably they were missing a little pitching. But if you were looking up their statistics during the regular season you were like, ‘Wow.’ There was nothing to say. They were doing great all year.
I think the key moment was, when we got to the playoffs. We played the first game of the semi-finals and we won against them. We played a crazy game. A big comeback in the 8th I guess it was, the score was like 4-1 and we ended up winning. Then we won game two and so we were leading two games out of five.
We won those first two games on the road. Then we lost two at home. We won game five so then we got to the final. We were on a roll. It was just one of those kind of moments where everything works out. The hitting works. The pitching works out. In the regular season it was like, the pitchers are working well but we’re not getting any hits or if we were getting a lot of hits then pitching was not helping a lot. In the playoffs, for some reason, everything was just all together and we played really good. Then we won the championship.
And you were the MVP of the championship?
Yep. I got the MVP of the final series. I did really good. Overall – regular season, semi-finals and finals - it was a good season. Then I won the MVP so it was a really good year.
Anything that was different playing back at home that made the season fun?
My family was at the game and watching the playoffs. That makes you feel good, but for them, you know. To me it really doesn’t matter just as long as I’m playing baseball.
Is there anything you miss about being in the US now that you’re home?
Yes, all the games that I was playing there.
It sounds like you had a life started in the US so why the transition back?
I was motivated to come back. Honestly I didn’t really like the way that they released me. I couldn’t understand why. Well, yes, I get it. It’s a business so players come and players go.
I decided to use this season to keep playing and to stay in shape. I was like, ‘Okay, let’s go back and play for one year.’
Now I can feel I am different than what I was when I was with the Dodgers. I feel like I have improved. My goal is to go back and play somewhere.
How do you think you were able to improve your game in Europe?
The level here is pretty good. I wish I was playing every day but we have two games a week. Sometimes it was even like, for the first game, similar to the United States. The first game is a foreign pitcher, so that’s a good level. I feel like a lot of the pitchers had good stuff. There were pitchers with experience, older than me. In the end, I felt like ‘Hey, you know, I’ve improved here. I can get better even here, back in Italy.’
You’re too old for the MLB Camps. How do you get seen while living in Europe?
I have an agent in the States now that is working for me to get me with a team. It’s brand new to me so hopefully we will see this winter what is going to come up.
Do you have any team you would be more inclined to than another?
Honestly, in this situation, it has to be a pro team, but whatever comes up I’m just going to go there and do my best.
I’m lucky. Even here I know a lot of coaches that know people. The more people you know, the more contacts, the better.
I’m actually going to the United States next week, to meet up with my girlfriend, but I saw there was an independent ball tryout. I will talk to my agent but I would like to show up.
In Italy, it is a good league but you’re not getting called up anywhere. You know what I mean? You’ve basically, let’s say, arrived.
What I’m really looking for is not money or anything, it’s basically chances and possibilities. I’m still young. I’m 22. I just want to get the chance that I deserve and take advantage of it and take what comes from that.
It’s hard for a lot of European signees of the MLB. You’re still physically maturing and you have to compete against a cultural difference in the approach to the game.
Besides the actual physical aspects you have players that, even if they are the same age, they play way more than you.
When I was a kid in Italy we were playing one game, two games a week, whatever. Not a big deal. In the United States players play in college, they play every day. They have different educations in baseball.
Do you know why you got cut?
Yeah. In 2016 I started playing with the Loons. I did bad. I couldn’t get the read, couldn’t get the timing. Then they sent me back to extended spring training. I did good in extended so I was like, ‘Okay, well I’m about to go back to the same team.’ But then they put me in Ogden, which is advanced rookie ball. I’d never been there before. It was kind of like going down instead. There I had just 8 at bats.
Obviously I wasn’t playing so that’s when I was like, ‘Oh. Something’s up. I’m here and I’m not even playing every day.’ I asked the manager twice if everything was okay and they were like, ‘Yeah. Everything’s okay.’ Then he was like, ‘I’ll let you know in the office later.’ From there he just released me and I was expecting that.
You got released so there is an indication you have stuff that needs work. Did you get a read on what that was and have you been able to make improvements?
While they were releasing me what the coach told me was that, following their standards, I was below the average. But they didn’t tell me, ‘Hey you need to work on this or that.’
When I came back I met, a coach from Rimini. He really helped me out and we kind of changed the mechanics of my swing. He’s such a great coach. He’s the kind of a coach that tells you stuff and, for some reason, their stuff sticks in your mind and it never leaves you.
That’s why I’m waiting to go back because what I learned in these last few months from this coach is totally different than the way they were teaching me in the States. They were teaching me the same information in the States but I couldn’t understand. You know? Now this coach told me this stuff and I actually get it. I can do it in the game now.
So you had a click moment where you finally understood the message?
Yeah. Exactly. And for this click moment I have to be thankful to this coach because he’s a great guy. He played baseball in Italy for so many years.
Did he ever coach you before you left?
No. Never. Elio Gambuti (bench coach), that’s his name. He played forever, and I knew he was a great player, but I never met him as a coach. This season, random timing, he got back with this team when I got back.
We worked out together in March, before the actual season, and I was seeing results. In the end I won the MVP this year. Something for sure has clicked in my mind so that’s why I got an agent. I’m like, ‘Hey, I’m ready. I’m ready to back to the States.’
Right now, if I go back to the States, I already know how everything works. I already know what they’re expecting. I’ve already been there once. The first time it’s like, ‘Oh man. Everything is new here. I don’t know how to…’ Now, I already know.
How are you feeling about the way you play your position?
In the outfield? Good. From that aspect I learned a lot with the Dodgers. On defense, and especially base running, I learned a lot, really a lot, with the Dodgers.
I got that right away when I was brought there. I was kind of new to their game but it improves the more you play.
What are some differences in learning the game in Europe and playing in the States?
It is definitely a huge difference because of all the coaches. I played as a pro in the States. All the coaches with the Dodgers have played baseball in the big leagues. I don’t want to say they know what they’re talking about, well of course they do - and I don’t want to say that Italian coaches don’t know, no that’s not the point - but yes, they have more experience.
The American model of playing baseball is kind of different than the Italian model, just slightly different. It’s better, of course, in America. Let’s say the American training system is like the bible. It’s what everybody should watch and aspire to. How we play baseball here it’s just different.
In the States you play more every day and you learn from your mistakes in the game. Here I have to wait until the weekend to play. And practice, yes, it’s good but it’s not that good when you practice five days and you play two.
You have more opportunities and you just play so many games in the States that you can just actually try stuff and you can improve a lot.
Were there any book materials that helped you learn the game off the field?
Honestly, no. It was basically like, in spring training for example, you go home and think okay today the coach told me to do this. Even off the field I’m thinking about it. I’m rethinking what I’ve done. It’s not like I’m going home and reading. It’s basically about what I did on the field.
There was one book I was reading but it was more the mental aspects, it wasn’t technique. It was the mental side of baseball, which is really important, because baseball’s like 90% mental.
How do you mean?
The temper, how calm you are, what matters really in the game. Let’s say, for example, that you’re struggling and you’re 0-10, you’ve got to be strong in your mind to be like, ‘Hey. I’ve got this. I know how I can get out of this.’ That’s something that’s really important and something that I studied in spring training in all the years with the Dodgers.
With baseball players it’s always like, ‘Oh, I’m doing really good’ and ‘Oh, I’m struggling.’ If you’re a good player you’re trying to be consistent instead. That’s why the mind, the brain aspect, is fundamental. You’ve got to be calm and just know what you’re doing.
Now that I remember, we did talk about how important it is during training for a few weeks. It was important, like really important.
There are people that believe in the mental game. Others visualization. That was talked about a lot. Seeing what’s in yourself, doing something on the field and then, when it comes to that situation your body kind of recognizes it and knows what you have to do.
You put pressure to yourself when you’re like, ‘Oh my God, it’s a really important part of the game and I don’t know what to do.’ So the idea is to never find yourself in that position. When it comes to visualization, just know what you’re doing. And especially be strong in your mind honestly.
Yeah, exactly. The routine, I feel, is fundamental for a baseball player because, you have to know what’s coming first and what’s going to happen next. You have to know what to do.
Did you find it helped you become more even-tempered?
Well, to be more flat, as much as possible, that’s the goal. For example, if you want to talk about me, at the beginning of 2016, when I started the season bad and got sent back, that was a moment of frustration.
In spring training I was like, ‘Okay, I made a step back.’ And I was in my mindset, ‘Alright. I know what I’m doing and what I have to do.’ And then that’s when I started playing better.
So yes, you’ve got to struggle and you have to hope that the team is not going to send you down. That they trust you. You’ve just gotta find the calm. Don’t try to do too much. Be calm in your brain basically.
Competing for an MLB spot is intense. What are some coping mechanisms you devised?
I wasn’t really thinking about it. Right now I’m realizing it is a competition. Even your teammate, they could be the guy who’s taking your spot, but honestly I wasn’t thinking about that when I was playing. I wasn’t putting pressure onto myself, like, ‘Oh, this guy right behind me or next to me, he’s going to take my spot.’
Do you think you were at a disadvantage not thinking that way?
You’re aware that if you’re not playing good there is someone on your team, or someone on the lower or upper level, that’s going to take your spot. You know that. But it’s not like when you play you’re thinking, ‘Oh, I have to play good.’ You’re just putting pressure on yourself. It’s not, ‘Oh, whatever. I don’t care.’ No. You know that, if you’re playing good you might get called up. If not, if you’re playing bad, you might get sent down.
It becomes part of that mental aspect?
Yeah. Honestly what I was doing every day was, ‘Okay. I’m going on the field and I’m giving my 100%. It could be a good day. It could be a bad day but I know that I gave all my 100%, that I have no regrets. That’s not going to mean I played great every day. You realize that eventually.
Having the plan of like, today for example I play 50%, you’re going to regret that because those at bats, or that game can’t be replayed. They will count toward your career. They count your good with your bad stuff.
It’s giving your 100%. Playing every day, even if you’re going to be tired some days. I stayed away from the pressure by thinking, ‘I’m just giving all of myself today, whatever I have. Let’s see what’s gonna happen.’
But now, I’m different. If I go back I’m going to be, ‘Okay. I got this. I know what I have to do right now.’ Then it was more like, ‘You should do…’. It was people telling me but now I actually feel that under my skin. I know what it means. So that’s going to give me extra motivation to do better.
How do you keep your training up without daily team play and practice?
That’s honestly a great question. I’m working out in the gym, and doing the conditioning I was doing with the Dodgers. I have the same plan and the same workout besides what I’m doing in the games.
I know that, with the Dodgers, you have the top preparation ever. I’ve been there, and I’ve done it before, so I decided to keep doing it.
Once you’ve seen pro baseball, and you’ve achieved something there, you want to go back. It’s basically motivation like, ‘Hey, one day I want to go back.’ And you have to have your body ready to do it.
Do you have any superstitions you picked up in the States?
No. Not really. I think that baseball is obviously the most superstitious game ever, yes. For example, every time I go to bat, like batting in the box, I realize that I’m doing a lot of stuff in the same way, but it’s not like I’m doing this because I’m superstitious. We’re going back to that routine. I’m doing this because that’s my routine and then after that I’m feeling ready but yeah, it could be superstitious.
For example, right before the game here in Italy I was having the trainer put the tape on my wrists in a certain way. It can be superstitious or it can be this is my routine but, I think it’s more superstitious than routine. I mean I can tape myself.
No smelly socks then?
Not that but, honestly, sometimes when we were playing Friday and Saturday, because here you have to do the laundry by yourself, I was making sure that the undershirt was the same. Depends on how the game went.
What’s the most valuable lesson you learned from your experience abroad?
Probably not wasting anything. You honestly have to realize how lucky you are. Right now I’m in Italy and I’m looking at my career with the Dodgers and I’m just now realizing, ‘Wow. I had a big shot.’
When you’re in it, when I was with the Dodgers, you don’t realize. I was like, ‘I play. Whatever. It’s normal.’ But now, when I’m looking at other realities, I’m like, ‘Oh, I had a big shot.’
My advice, or what I learned, is never waste an at bat. You don’t know. Don’t waste anything. Take the best out of it. That’s it.
Do you think understanding that will be your biggest asset to a team if you’re picked back up?
Exactly. Right now I know how it’s working and I know the worth of the chance that it will give me. I understand it. I just didn’t realize it before. I’m looking at how hard it is to get back and it’s like, ‘Wow.’ Now I understand.
Was the first opportunity you had was simple because the right people saw you at the right time?
When I signed initially I was in the academy. I think, basically, thanks to the academy, and the MLB camp, that’s how I got the shot of signing the contract.
Which academy did you attend?
Tirrenia, Italy, which is 3 1/2-4 hours away.
What was it like to make that transition?
I knew the people that were in the academy, because during the regular season I was playing against them. Even if they weren’t from my city, I knew them. I had friends. It wasn’t a big deal. The only thing that was changing was getting away from the family. That wasn’t really a big deal, honestly. Then it got even worse because I went to America.
Did you attend the academy with some of the other MLB guys?
What brought you to the academy?
I always played in Rimini. I went to an MLB tryout but I was a pitcher at that time. I didn’t even apply for the Italian academy. From the tryout I got into the academy. I pitched for one year and then the scouts were like, ‘Hey, you know, he has this body type and these characteristics. I want to see him in the outfield.’
So then they put me in the outfield. I practiced one year and then the next year they signed me. So they signed me when I was playing just a year in the outfield. Kind of like a brand new spot.
Do you feel it’s the right spot for you?
Yeah. I feel really confident now in the outfield. In the United States I played right and left and a little bit of center during spring training. In Italy I played only left and center so now I have all three spots covered. When I was with the Dodgers I was practicing to cover 1st, just to have an extra position to play.
What do you like about playing in the outfield?
Left field, right field, center field. It doesn’t really matter. I probably like everything. I run fast. I enjoy throwing people out. I just enjoy outfield in general.
What do you do when you’re not playing baseball?
It’s all about baseball right now. Career is like a second life. That’s a possibility I’m not even thinking about. Right now I’m single-focused on baseball then, we will see in the future if baseball is not working.
Anything I haven’t asked you about that you want the world to know?
I just want to go back and play in the States. I’ve changed and I’ve improved a lot. I’m 22 now so when I got released I was just 21 and I was 18 or 19 when I started. People grow and I feel that I’m a different player - of course a better player. I’m just hoping to get my shot and I’m waiting for it.
What can you give a team now that you couldn’t when you were 21?
Probably the little bit of experience and, looking at the stats and everything, I was hitting more for contact then. So probably, the power now, I can give.
It’s funny because I have all the videos of my at bats in my iPad and sometimes, just looking over it I’m like what?! What I was doing – for example swinging at sliders in the dirt – not really disciplined.
Now, even in the playoffs, the people that saw me told me how I’d improved. Especially how calm I am. How I wait on pitches for example. Not rushing the at bats. Going more deep in the count. Knowing how to implement.
Swinging through the contact and patience at the plate then?
Yeah, more disciplined at the plate and just knowing what I’m doing. Now I have an actual plan that I can stick with and it works. I had to try a lot of stuff before realizing what worked and that takes time.
What was it that finally helped it sink in for you?
Time. I spent three years with the Dodgers and I think that every year I changed my swing. It’s just those kinds of things that the coaches tell you. You try but then it’s not like in a week it works or it doesn’t. The trying process takes at bats, takes games and takes statistics. In Italy, I had the time to practice when statistics weren't on the line.
Now, I feel like my swing is solid. I might be wrong but I don’t think they'll try to change it again because it's working. They might fix little things, for the situation of the game for example, but I’ve reached the point where I’ve found my swing.